Wisconsin-like protests: Could it happen here?

Posted: February 21, 2011

THE PROTESTS have been growing bigger and louder and getting more media attention with each passing day - throngs angry at a government that is not listening to them, and occasionally animated by news about leaders who've fled into hiding.

And now there are signs that the rebellion is jumping borders to other jurisdictions.

Don't look for this one on Al-Jazeera television, however. The Arabic network may not have a bureau in Madison, Wis. - America's new Ground Zero for our anxiety about taxes and tea parties, unions and democracy - but that hasn't stopped the inevitable comparisons to Cairo.

And why not? The swelling crowds of unionized public employees, including teachers, students, and liberal sympathizers jamming the streets of the Wisconsin capital, hit a new high yesterday at an estimated 70,000 or more.

The issue at hand involves an effort - thwarted so far - by newly elected tea-party ally and GOP Gov. Scott Walker and new Republican majorities in the Wisconsin legislature not only to gain budget givebacks from public-worker unions but to strip them of their key collective-bargaining rights, the foundation of the American labor movement.

But to many involved, the Madison protests go even deeper - it's about middle-class Americans simply having a voice in a nation where politics as usual has failed to stop a massive flow of wealth over 30 years from everyday workers to CEOs, financiers and the top 1 percent.

"This is not about money - it's never been about money," one female marcher, heavily bundled against the chill of the prairie winter, told an NBC News camera on Saturday. "It's about the Republican Party trying to squash Democrats and trying to squash union rights."

Of course, this is America - and so that's only one version of the narrative. Walker and his supporters - including a couple of thousand tea-party movement activists who held a counterdemonstration on Saturday - say that the Badger State is essentially broke and that the governor is doing what 52 percent of Wisconsin voters elected him to do last fall - rein in big government.

"Cairo is not a good analogy," Judson Phillips, leader of the national group Tea Party Nation, said last night in an e-mail interview. "In Wisconsin, we have a state government that is making decisions based on what the people told them in the last election."

The stalemate in Madison is sure to last several days - today is the President's Day holiday, for one thing - and could last for weeks. Walker's bill can't pass the state's Senate without a quorum, and all 14 Democrats have prevented that by leaving the state for an undisclosed location - eluding state troopers tasked with rounding them up.

In the meantime, also with shades of the Middle East, the protests are spreading elsewhere. In Ohio, which also elected a new Republican governor, John Kasich - who is backing a similar tough-on-unions law - about 4,000 red-clad protesters flooded the capital, Columbus, on Saturday.

So, can it happen here? That is, in Pennsylvania?

On one level, it already is, as unionized workers here in the Keystone State are racing to voice solidarity. The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO asked all members of the state's largest labor organization to wear red tomorrow, and its secretary-treasurer, Frank Snyder, urged Wisconsin voters to recall Walker and GOP lawmakers, saying: "Put Wisconsin in the hands of the people, not tyrants."

Here in Philadelphia, labor activists are putting together a rally of support slated for 11:30 a.m. Thursday at LOVE Park.

One of the backers of the rally is Thomas Paine Cronin, the former longtime head of the white-collar city workers' union in Philadelphia who now works on labor issues at St. Joseph's University. He says that it's outrageous that Wisconsin - where Walker says that he's facing a long-term budget hole of $3.6 billion - is blaming its economic woes on workers and not on Wall Street.

"That's just garbage - that anyone would blame a sanitation worker or a social worker or a prison guard or somebody else because they have a piddling pension," he said. "People are forgetting what's happened the last few years, and who was really making out."

But it won't be at least several weeks until Pennsylvania learns whether its new Republican governor, Tom Corbett, will propose draconian cuts targeting state workers, or whether he will seek any changes in their collective-bargaining power. That is what will determine whether Harrisburg becomes Cairo-on-the-Susquehanna this spring.

Most experts don't see that - they note that Corbett didn't campaign last year on a labor-busting platform, and that Pennsylvania's 1970 law giving union rights to state workers and teachers - Act 195 - would be extremely difficult to repeal.

"That was never an issue," said G. Terry Madonna, the political scientist and pollster from Franklin & Marshall College, adding quickly, "I'm not suggesting he won't go after benefits and salaries." Pennsylvania is facing a budget hole estimated at as much as $5 billion.

But, then, critics note that Wisconsin's Walker didn't make a big deal in his campaign about curbing basic union rights - until the moment he proposed it. They see the almost invisible hand of the billionaire libertarian tea-party funders, the Koch brothers, whose Koch Industries does considerable business in Wisconsin and which was a major donor to the Walker campaign last fall.

In the big picture, a bill crippling public-sector unions in Wisconsin - if enacted elsewhere - could be a huge political loss for the Democrats, who increasingly depend on unions for large donations on the scale of the corporations that back the GOP.

Which may explain why some labor activists and progressives see this a showdown of biblical proportions - waged not in the warm shadows of the pyramids but amid the Arctic air blasts of the American Midwest.

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